Esoteric have released all three of the albums by British band Unicorn that were produced by Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and, while they have similar traits to each other, it is possible to see the development of the band and of Gilmour as a producer.

Musically you can clearly hear the influences of US bands such as America, The Byrds, James Taylor and especially Crosby Still & Nash but they also show a district British sense of humour and an almost Canturbury-esque sense of the off-kilter.

The lineup of the band is the same for all three albums – Kenny Baker (Guitar, Keys & Vocals), Kevin Smith (lead guitar & mandolin), Pete Perrier (drums) & Pat Martin (bass) – and the sense of them as a band increases as you go through the three albums.

The first of the three albums was ‘Blue Pine Trees’ and the opening track ‘Electric Night’ just about sums the band up. Mandolin as the key instrument, fluid and melodic bass line and powerful drums with high pitched vocals. But it is, for me, some clever and challenging lyrics that set them apart from the majority of bands. ‘Sleep Song’ has the narrative qualities of the West Coast bands and beautifully played pedal steel (Mr Gilmour I think) that emphasises the journey into into sleep of the lyrics. ‘Autumn Wine’ is very much a British folk song with eerie changes and – a la Beatles – vocals mixed just beneath the music so that you have to listen carefully for the themes and story. And that is just the first three tracks – I haven’t even mentioned the Doobie Brothers riff of ‘Rat Race’.
That may have been their biggest problem – although they are all very capable musicians and the actual material is original and very fresh, there are also a lot of himts to other bands and you can easily find yourself playing the ‘that sounds like ….’ game.
If you can avoid playing the game the album is a joy to listen to and every time through throws up another little gem you missed last time through.

Moving on to the 2nd of the three and ‘Too Many Crooks’ they have definitely solidified their Byrds influences but also moved on in terms of their talent and their skills. Gilmour’s production definitely has more space and airiness around the band. ‘Ferry Boat’ seems to be talking about the band’s early days (they first started in ’63 and were playing the European circuit through the late sixties) while ‘Keep On Going’ is a real boogie number that gets the heart racing and the bum waggling. ‘The title track is the folksiest track on the album, a plaintive voice over a gentle acoustic. The harmonies are stronger than on the previous set and there is a little less of the whimsy but it is a strong album and possibly the most complete of the three.

The third album opens with a very un-Creedence version of ‘Have You Seen The Rain’ that works really well – the softer and sweeter vocals giving the song more of a summer feel than Fogerty managed. The album has more of a country feel, moving a little away from the folk side of their earlier material, never more so than on ‘British Rail Romance’ which tells a familiar tale of love unrequited. The title track, for me, is the most convincing number and the playing on it is sublime but it rather stands apart from the rest of the album which is ok, but not as good as the other two.

As usual with Esoteric these are beautifully remastered and contain plenty of bonus material – mostly very well worthwhile – as well as superb booklets.

Unicorn were one of the bands overtaken by Punk & New Wave who made some fine music but weren’t quite in the wind of the time. That they have not been forgotten is great because they deserve to be heard and enjoyed and Esoteric have done a great job here.